What It's Like Being the Biggest Dude in CFB

Minnesota offensive lineman Daniel Faalele is still learning football, but at 6'9" and 400 pounds, this Australian import is ready to dominate the Big Ten and soon the NFL.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterMINNEAPOLISMay 20, 2019

It's not where Daniel Faalele wants to begin, but when you're 6'9" and close to 400 pounds, it's hard to start anywhere else.

As Minnesota's soon-to-be sophomore right tackle gracefully eases into a chair at the team's football complex, donning an XXXXL maroon golf shirt and size-18 Nikes, he looks resigned to it. He knows the questions are inevitable.

And in truth, it's hard not to ask the questions he has answered his entire life—about his height and weight and how it could all come together to form an athlete we have never seen before.

"It can get a little bit tiresome," Faalele says softly and politely, instantly contradicting any presumption you might have made about what someone his size should sound like. "But I get it. I understand that I'm big. And I know a lot of people are going to be a little crazy about it.”

For as long as he can remember—dating back to his days of playing rugby and basketball in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia—this has been what he's most known for.       

By the age of 12, he was the size of an NFL linebacker. By 15, he was bigger than most NFL offensive linemen. As he sits here at 18, the sleeves on his golf shirt snugly hug his defined biceps, and despite a massive neck and shoulders that require custom shoulder pads, his torso is noticeably lean. He has 300 pounds of good mass—muscle, tissue and bone—which means he is, impossibly, less than 25 percent body fat.

This Hulk-like build earned him scholarship offers from some of the most desired destinations in college football, even though Faalele barely knew what American football was three years ago.

In the Big Ten, you might expect growing pains. And indeed he is still learning the nuances of the game, but he thrived as a true freshman. One of the largest players to ever grace the gridiron, Faalele carries his weight in a way that makes it look natural.

And that's why what most interests those inside the Gophers football complex isn't his size.Even if they recognize they will most likely never coach anyone like him ever again, measurements have quickly become a secondary talking point.

"This guy is more than a novelty," Minnesota offensive line coach Brian Callahan says. "This is as good as I've been around, and I've been around some good ones that are starting in the NFL. But this guy could be special."

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

The anticipation surrounding Faalele and what he could grow into is building. Coaches wonder how dominant he could be if his technique catches up to his physical gifts. And that time is approaching sooner than anyone could've possibly imagined.


At first, Kevin Wright was somewhat skeptical. The head coach at IMG Academy—a boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, that regularly attracts premier athletes from around the world—was certain his friend was hyperbolizing about the player he had just met.

But that friend, a former lineman, was adamant. He had just met one the biggest football players he had ever seen while visiting Melbourne. It wasn't until he sent a picture of the two of them standing side by side—Faalele a full head taller—that Wright's skepticism morphed into curiosity.

At the time, Faalele's football profile was starting to flourish. An assistant coach from Hawaii had stumbled upon Faalele, rehabbing a leg injury at a gym in Melbourne when Faalele was in ninth grade. After putting Faalele through a handful of light drills to see how he could move, he offered him a scholarship on the spot.

"I didn't realize how big of an opportunity it was until he started talking about how this could amount to a free education," Faalele says. "It just felt like a great opportunity."

After Faalele attended Michigan's Australian satellite football camp, hosted by Jim Harbaugh, more coaches caught on, and the offers started to roll in. That momentum carried over when Faalele and his mother, Ruth, decided he would attend IMG Academy for his junior and senior seasons.

When he arrived in the United States, he didn't know what a yard was or how first downs worked. So heading into his first season, Faalele made it clear to Wright that he wanted to practice and learn and didn't want to play in games. Beyond the wealth of information he absorbed every day, Faalele credits the video game Madden for helping him learn the rules of football.

He also took on a new role, water boy, helping keep coaches and players hydrated, even though he didn't have to. Wright still recalls the time Faalele handed an official a bottle of water—and the accompanying expression of pure disbelief Faalele received in return.

Throughout that first season, the offers were still coming in. "Whether it was Les Miles or others, he was just getting offered by what he looked like working out," Wright says. "I just remember head coaches coming in and just shaking their heads."

While Miles, Harbaugh and Nick Saban all coveted Faalele, it was Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck who made the best impression throughout the recruiting process—largely because football was only a portion of his pitch. Academics and even the spirituality of the decision have long been important talking points for Fleck.

"If you just want to play ball," Fleck says, "I am probably not for you."

At the time, Fleck assumed that was the case—that given his popularity in recruiting circles, Faalele was destined for Alabama or Georgia. But unlike elite players who grow up with program or geographical ties, Faalele sought comfort in familiarity.

He found it, at least at first, in the form of two IMG teammates: quarterback Zack Annexstad and guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. And both committed to Fleck and Minnesota in late 2017.

Dunlap, in particular, had a lot in common with Faalele. Both had offers from schools across the nation, both were larger than life (Dunlap was 6'5" and 370 pounds), and both were looking for a coach who was more than just a coach. Faalele's father was not a part of his childhood, and Dunlap's father died while his son was in high school.

The pair became close at IMG, and the thought of carving a football legacy together was appealing, so they both committed to Minnesota.

"I felt like some of the other schools didn't have that family environment and atmosphere I wanted," Faalele says. "I wanted to play for Coach Fleck."


The plan for Faalele's freshman season at Minnesota—just his second full season of football—was to let him develop at a pace he was comfortable with.

Though expectations were reserved, the coaching staff grew more comfortable with the idea of playing Faalele after each practice. He got his first taste of action when the game was out of reach in the season opener against New Mexico State. But he didn't see his first real action until Oct. 6 against Iowa, when coaches turned to Faalele to start the third quarter after Hawkeyes defensive lineman Anthony Nelson finished the first half with three sacks.

"We watched him in practice and knew that a defensive end wouldn't be able to run through him," Fleck says. "And because of his size, we knew that they were going to have to go further outside to run around him, which would delay pressure at least an extra half-second. That's when we put him in there."

Almost instantly, Faalele helped stabilize the offense. His play wasn't perfect—and no one expected it to be—but his influence was undeniable. After his huge first half, Nelson made only one tackle the rest of the day.

Faalele's first start came the following Saturday at Ohio State, and he continued to improve. From that point forward, he was locked in at right tackle. 

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

"We just put him out there, and every week he just got better and better and better," Fleck says. "He is nowhere close to where he is going to be two or three years from now, but he is way further along than the day he got here. The sky really is the limit."

In the team's first four games of the season, Minnesota averaged 3.6 yards per carry—a figure skewed by a 295-yard performance against New Mexico State in the opener. In the eight games to close the year, with Faalele in the lineup, the Gophers averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

While his performance improved each week, the breakthrough came against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. In the second quarter, on a zone run to the right, Faalele perfectly blocked a lineman on first down. What excited the coaches, though, wasn't the fact that Faalele engaged using sound technique;what they have since watched dozens of times was the way Faalele finished his block through and beyond the whistle, pancaking the opposition to the ground.

"He can be the best there is," Dunlap says. "There really is no ceiling."


While his size has opened doors Faalele had no idea even existed a few years ago, the hope is that soon he will be known for who he is and what he can do rather than what he looks like.

Playing football can complicate this task, of course. Size and speed are the game's greatest currencies, and Faalele was born with both. But now that those gifts are being refined, those around him hope the perception will evolve.

"He gets a lot of attention, and it's warranted in some ways," Callahan says. "But I don't think he wants that to be what he's known for, being a 6'9" kid from Australia still just starting out. He wants to be known for being a damn good football player that has a chance to be very special."

Faalele did not embark on the journey alone. His mother and younger brother, Taylor, who is 13 years old and already 6'2" and 280 pounds, uprooted and moved to Minneapolis to join him in August. They viewed this as a family decision from the start, and each of them has spent the past year transitioning to a new country, routine and way of life.

On the weekends, Faalele spends much of the time with his mother. "She's always been there for me," he says. "Having her here means my main support system is always nearby."

His voice is quiet and understated—so quiet that it can be difficult to hear him unless you're in very close. His handshake, despite his having paws that require XXXXL gloves, is gentle and comforting. Though it is a nearly impossible task, Faalele is doing whatever possible to fit in.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

"People see a 400-pound kid, and they think he is going to run through the window or break a door down," Fleck says. "No, he is like a normal 18-year-old. He is emotional, he has feelings, he has doubts, he's got fears. He is just like any other kid his age, only probably much bigger."


In April, Faalele embraced yet another role. During Minnesota's spring game, he was inserted at running back.

While most 400-pounders would be incapable of carrying the ball near the goal line, Faalele looked at ease. After taking the handoff cleanly, he stayed on his feet as he pinballed his way forward, lumbering through a sea of maroon and gold to find the end zone.

After he crossed the goal line, he was engulfed by teammates. Faalele raised his hand toward the sky, high above anyone else's, and began to wave.

This was his arrival. Not Iowa or Ohio State but a scrimmage in which he did something you would never have expected from someone his size.

Three years into his football career and still a few years from the NFL, he's only just started showing fans how much more he is than his height or weight.

         

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

Related

    Bo Nix Named Auburn Starting Quarterback

    College Football logo
    College Football

    Bo Nix Named Auburn Starting Quarterback

    AuburnUndercover & ITAT
    via AuburnUndercover & ITAT

    Oregon's Thibodeaux Is Ready to Wreck the Pac-12

    College Football logo
    College Football

    Oregon's Thibodeaux Is Ready to Wreck the Pac-12

    Edward Aschoff
    via ESPN.com

    Lawrence Headlines Preseason AP All-America 1st Team

    Minnesota Golden Gophers Football logo
    Minnesota Golden Gophers Football

    Lawrence Headlines Preseason AP All-America 1st Team

    Tim Daniels
    via Bleacher Report

    Minnesota Gopher Football Preview, answering 5 big questions for the 2019 season

    Minnesota Golden Gophers Football logo
    Minnesota Golden Gophers Football

    Minnesota Gopher Football Preview, answering 5 big questions for the 2019 season

    The Daily Gopher
    via The Daily Gopher